Welcome to Britain: Border control officers can seize personal data without reasonable suspicion

The detention of David Miranda, partner of <em>Guardian</em> journalist Glenn Greenwald, by border officials has put the spotlight on the powers conferred on the UK's border control officials by Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000.

How would you feel if the police stopped you on a whim, took your phone, your laptop, your digital camera, your MP3 player, your USB sticks and your memory cards then copied everything on them?

How would you feel if they told you they were going to keep all your photographs, your documents, your address book, your financial data, your browsing history, your emails, your chat logs, your electronic diary, your music and recordings and anything else they liked for at least six years - indeed maybe they’d keep them until you reached the age of a hundred in case they might prove useful one day?

How would you feel if they then demanded all of your passwords and threatened you with years in jail if you refused to hand them over?

Welcome to Britain.

These are the rights granted to the police at the border controls of this country.

Within the UK, police officers are authorised to seize phones and download information only after making an arrest. The border control officers have no such limitations.

Anyone entering or leaving the UK faces this possible treatment under port powers contained in Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000. No prior authorisation is needed to stop you and there does not need to be any suspicion. Your data can be kept even if you are not arrested and the police can find no evidence of any crime.

The Terrorism Act 2000 was introduced after the IRA ceasefire to make permanent previous emergency legislation that had been intended to be used for six months only but had been renewed and extended annually for 25 years. The new act is based on the recommendations of Lord Lloyd of Berwick's 1996 Inquiry yet arguably fails to address his concerns about human rights or meet his principle "that permanent anti-terrorist legislation should approximate as closely as possible to ordinary criminal law and procedure".

Each year around half a million people are stopped as they enter or leave the UK for screening questions which last for a few seconds or minutes. Nearly 70,000 are examined for longer periods. Less than 0.03 per cent of those questioned for longer are arrested.

The Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism advises that there are no national records kept of data downloads taken and that downloads are conducted at the examining officer’s discretion on a case-by-case basis but that they occur “in a substantial number of cases”.

Noting the arguments for allowing stops without suspicion, David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism laws, warned in 2012 and again in 2013

...despite having made the necessary enquiries, I have not been able to identify from the police any case of a Schedule 7 examination leading directly to arrest followed by conviction in which the initial stop was not prompted by intelligence of some kind.

In spite of this the police still have the legal power to act on a hunch or a whim.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden memorably described the NSA and GCHQ spying apparatus as “turnkey totalitarianism”. When asked why the British seem so complacent about this, the academic, journalist and author John Naughton noted

“Britain has no recent historical experience of being invaded, and so the culture has no clear understanding of the consequences of intensive surveillance technology and records falling into the 'wrong' hands.”

The retention of data for as long as the state feels it might be useful, should alarm everyone. Everyone should have something to hide. Just because we live in a nominally democratic society right now doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Russia, ironically the first country to decriminalise homosexuality, is fast criminalising it again. Right now you would have good reason to feel worried if the Russian state was holding copies of your mobile telephone and computer data if that included evidence of your sexuality.

Within the UK, there is a growing litany of abuse by police officers being exposed. This is alleged to include spying on the friends and families of victims of police brutality, seemingly with the intent to discredit. How happy are you that your most intimate messages and photographs could be in the hands of people who have shown themselves only too willing to leak sensitive information to the press?

David Anderson has warned in his latest annual report on terror legislation in the UK:

The fact that such powers are useful does not automatically mean that they are proportionate. It is ultimately for Parliament, prompted if necessary by the courts, to strike the appropriate balance. Even if a no-suspicion power to stop and examine is thought acceptable, it might for example be possible to require some level of suspicion before a phone can be downloaded or a person can be taken into detention... by analogy with the proposal that reasonable suspicion should be required before a strip search is conducted.

The comparison to a strip search is a good one. As the boundaries between the physical and the digital dissolve and more of our most intimate moments and experiences occur in places that overlap both spheres, the cold scientific language of “data” and “downloads” becomes insufficient to describe the sense of violation such behaviour by the state can cause.

Borders are strange places. We accept perhaps that we may be subject to invasive procedures when we cross but at the very least we expect that there must be reasonable suspicion for the degrading experience of a strip or cavity search. In the same way, we must demand that at the very least that our personal data be considered inviolable unless there are very clear grounds for this invasion. Privacy is a right we should not surrender easily, yet without our paying attention the state signed it away for all people trying to enter or leave the country.

There are many grounds for concern about these laws and the reluctance of the government to consult on the issues raised by David Anderson in his review of them. That the data of innocent people stopped without a warrant and without clear grounds for suspicion can be kept effectively forever is wrong.

Due to an ambiguity over whether the existing act provides sufficient legal authority for this copying of personal data, the government has proposed an amendment inserting a new paragraph 11A into Schedule 7, headed “Power to make and retain copies” as part of The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill passing through Parliament at the moment.

Although the government’s intention is simply to protect itself from legal challenges, this is potentially an opportunity to have stricter controls over these extensive powers written into the law.

The Bill has just entered the report stage. MPs now have the chance to introduce proposals for change. Unfortunately there seems to be little government will to make any changes to a bill that gives way too much authority to the police with too little accountability and too few safeguards. Little wonder given how few people seem to be aware of these sweeping powers.

This article was originally published on ORG Zine and is crossposted here with the author's permission

Police on duty at Heathrow airport. Photo: Getty
Getty
Show Hide image

To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.